Lost Dragon

VH-UXG, courtesy Phil Vabre

Very sad news today. On Monday, VH-UXG, a De Havilland DH.84 Dragon owned and flown by Des Porter, went missing on a flight from Monto to Caboolture in Queensland. A distress call and an emergency beacon were heard briefly, but then nothing more was known until today, when VH-UXG's wreckage was found in rugged terrain north of Borumba Dam. Unfortunately, all six on board were killed: Des and Kathleen Porter, Carol and John Dawson, Janice and Les D'evlin. My sympathies go out to their family and friends for their tragic loss.

The aeroplane itself is also a loss, if nowhere near as tragic a one. The Dragon, along with its successor the Dragon Rapide, is perhaps the classic 1930s small commuter airliner, designed for flying feeder routes between regional airports and metropolitan centres. Before Monday, there were apparently only eight Dragon survivors worldwide -- not four, as reported in the media -- of which six, remarkably, were still flying; now there are only seven and five respectively. (One of the seven is here in Melbourne at the RAAF Museum, tucked away in the back of one of the hangars.)

As can be seen from the photo above (taken from here, with the kind permission of Phil Vabre), VH-UXG was a beautiful aeroplane and had been lovingly restored. It was built in 1934 and flew in Britain for a couple of years as G-ACRF for Portsmouth, Southsea and Isle of Wight Aviation Ltd before being sold in 1936 to Aircrafts Pty Ltd, a Queensland airline and charter service, and then in 1948 to Queensland Flying Services. It had been sold again, this time into individual ownership, by the time it crashed and was written off at Archerfield in April 1954, and it was this wreckage which Porter eventually restored. Incredibly, his father was the owner and pilot of VH-UXG in that crash, and just a few months later was killed in another Dragon crash along with Des's older brother; Des himself survived. Parts of that aeroplane were apparently incorporated into VH-UXG's tail. (This is what I've pieced together from several online sources; again the media reports differ somewhat, saying that VH-UXG was the actual aeroplane Des's father and brother were killed in. I welcome any corrections.)

This raises the question of whether we should be flying such near-unique and near-irreplaceable vintage aeroplanes at all. I think we should. These machines were not designed to sit in museums, but to soar in the sky. That's their proper context, or at least part of it, and we can better understand them, and the people who built, flew and watched them, by trying to use them as authentic a manner as possible. That entails risk, but risk was and is inherently a part of flying. Statistically, this means we will eventually lose all flightworthy vintage aircraft to accidents (though we are still adding new ones to the list and there is a surprising amount that can be done with wreckage), but we'll at least still have the museum-bound survivors. One day even those will crumble into dust and rust. But that is the fate of all things. We can't pretend otherwise, so we should make use of what we've got while we've got it.

Some more lovely photos of VH-UXG, including when it was new, can be found here, here and here.

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8 thoughts on “Lost Dragon

  1. Andrew Reid

    That’s a shame.

    I had a chance to ride in a Ford Tri-Motor years ago, courtesy of a fund-raiser for the US Experimental Aircraft Association (to save Meigs Field in Chicago, wherein hangs another tale…).

    I got some idea just how hard it can be to preserve vintage aircraft. That’s a labor of love, for sure.

  2. Very sad.

    (I am so tempted to an ill-tempered rant at the demographic tragedy implied by the fact that it is ever-aging pilots in ever-aging planes that we are losing in this kind of accident. It’s not just the planes. We’re losing the people with the money and time to invest in these kinds of hobbies. Unfortunately, the rant would just make it sound like I want to be paid as much as a Baby Boomer. Which I do.)

  3. What an absolutely gorgeous aircraft! Very sorry to hear about the loss of the people onboard, but I agree entirely with the proposition that these older craft were meant to fly, and I’m somewhat cheered to learn that more of this model are still operational.

  4. Post author

    Errolwi:

    Wow, I can see that would be a bit surreal! At least it was a happier flight — I see JDK was there too. I hope to go on a Dragon/Dragon Rapide joyride one day; I had a chance to when I visited Duxford but I was too busy gawping at all the other aeroplanes…

    Andrew:

    I’d like to fly in a Trimotor too!

    Erik:

    Do you really think we’re going to run out of rich or even comfortably well-off aviation enthusiasts any time soon? Seems unlikely to me, even though these days all the cool megarich kids seem to be into space. I alluded in the post to the fact that we now have a flightworthy Mosquito, and there’s the incredible feat of keeping XH558 flying (though whether the money would be better spent on flying lots of other things is another question). Sure, eventually the passing of the babyboomers who have played such a strong part in heritage aviation will be a problem, but as I say in the post, nothing lives forever.

    Paul:

    Yes, gorgeous. I’m sorry I didn’t ever get to see it fly!

  5. Errolwi

    Brett, we also have a Dragonfly (which I took a ride in at Omaka a few years ago) based in Southland, and Fox Moths (Southland, and North Shore, Auckland) available for joy rides.

    We do seem to be getting post-baby boom successful NZ business people etc taking up vintage/warbird ownership or other involvement. Often they have family connections to the scene.

  6. A tragic loss of life, as well as of a remarkable restoration. A very sad event. As Errol has noted, particularly disconcerting given our trip in a sister aircraft only a day earlier.

    There are a number of points raised above which I’d like to address – I’ll probably do that separately, on my own blog. However I would point out, here, regarding aviation preservation (which is my field!)
    - That we have Dragons in national collections (including the RAAF Museum example mentioned above, and G-ACIT in the British Science Museum Collection, ‘the’ right and proper place for one) protected and preserved statically;
    - One of the other Dragons, ‘Iolar’ is owned and operated by Aer Lingus, as a heritage aircraft;
    - This aircraft was not an old aircraft flown continuously, but a relatively recent restoration and rebuild, in better condition than most modern airliners we fly in (both the Dragon and our jets all attaining the appropriate standards of airworthiness and certification, of course);
    - There is in fact a greater variety and quantity of vintage aircraft operated for pleasure, demonstration and commemoration now than there has ever been before, with numerous generations of owners and operators. The 1960s and 70s view of ‘old aircraft flown by old boys’ until they’re gone is now, thankfully, an historic myth.

    The only other accident with non-crew fatalities of a vintage airliner in recent decades I can recall is the fatal accident of the DC-3 of the Dutch Dakota Association PH-DDA in 1996 with all 32 aboard (including paying passengers) killed. Given that there are a significant number of vintage airliners flying pleasure flights currently worldwide, racking up what must be thousands of hours, and a greater number of take-offs and landings than conventional airliners, these aircraft are remarkably safe overall, despite these headlining accidents.

  7. Post author

    JDK:

    Thanks for the reality check! It would be interesting to see accident rate statistics for vintage aircraft, but there’s probably no real way to compare them with modern aircraft, the patterns of use would be so different. At least vintage airliners are not put through their paces like warbirds are.

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